In the 1960s, the censorship code crumbled and the floodgates of queer representation opened up in Hollywood, drowning us in complex, contradictory characters who are as wildly and weirdly compelling today as they were four decades ago.
Self-loathing and de-sexed fag and dyke victims and villains were the order the day as the decade got off to a start, but by the ’70s, queers on screen ran the gamut from the most farcical and dismal stereotypes to much more nuanced, daring and imaginative depictions.
Many of these classic films still pack an emotional punch on DVD; their notorious portrayals of strange, outrageous, dangerous and even deadly queers are the perfect consumer-priced antidote to Christmas cheer.
Make sure to watch them with your family and feel the glowing warmth of suspicions confirmed.
MOST MELODRAMATIC PUNISHMENT FOR SEX TOURISM
Suddenly Last Summer (directed by Joseph L Mankiewicz, 1959)
Well-heeled old Violet (Katharine Hepburn) tries to bribe Dr Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) to perform a lobotomy on her niece Cathy (Elizabeth Taylor). She must erase the girl’s traumatic, repressed memory of the lurid death at Cabeza de Lobo of Violet’s pride and joy, her only son, the sensitive and snobbish poet Sebastian (whose face is never shown). This stupefying Gore Vidal adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play has been called the strangest film to emerge from the classical Hollywood period.
Cathy confesses her relationship with Sebastian (“We procured for him”) to the doctor, and later, under truth serum, reveals that Sebastian had been chased, swarmed and eaten by hordes of starving native boys whom he sexually exploited. “It looked as if, as if they had devoured him… As if they’d torn bits of him away and stuffed them into their gobbling mouths.”
MOST INTENSE DISPLAY OF SHIVERING SELF-DISGUST
The Children’s Hour (William Wyler, 1961)
In this remarkable, groundbreaking film about the power of rumours, a wretched and possibly criminally insane little monster named Mary destroys the lives and careers of young school-mistresses Martha (Shirley MacLaine) and Karen (Audrey Hepburn) when she lies about them being lovers. The two are treated like pariahs (“I’ve got eight fingers, see, and two heads. I’m a freak,” Martha screeches to a smug delivery boy) and end up virtually imprisoned in the school.
Martha’s agonized, weeping confession to Karen that perhaps there is an “ounce of truth” to the lie that she has “unnatural” feelings for her, is incredibly gut-wrenching, a scene of naked self-revelation capped by her unforgettable blubbering: “I can’t stand to have you touch me, I can’t stand to have you look at me! Oh, it’s all my fault, I’ve ruined your life and I’ve ruined my own. I swear I didn’t know it, I didn’t mean it. Oh, I feel so damn sick and dirty I can’t stand it anymore!”
MOST SHARP-TONGUED, SOUTHERN LESBIAN WHITE SLAVER
Walk On The Wild Side (Edward Dmytryk, 1962)
Vicious cougar Jo (Barbara Stanwyck) is the cruel madam of a 1930s New Orleans brothel, The Dollhouse, above which she keeps stunning aspiring artist Hallie (Capucine) prisoner as her own private Euro sex kitten. When Hallie is wooed by a “Texas dirt farmer,” the gloves come off. Jo violently slaps and shakes poor Hallie when she impudently talks back and later, after Hallie tells Jo she’d rather drink with a john than with her, she responds “You’re being perverse.”
Jo’s attempt to destroy Hallie’s will to escape and marry farmer Dove is fantastically brutal: “How do you think the boy is going to feel when he finds out what you are, what you’ve been. After all, a girl like you has so much to offer a man: a knife to cut his heart out! Tell him about the days and nights of Hallie Gerard, tell him about the mud you’ve rolled in for years, well, tell him!” Hallie stomps her foot and collapses in a quivering heap of humiliation, a defeated, mop of hair crashing over her face.
MOST CALLOUS GAY-IN-THE-GUTTER SCENE
Advise And Consent (Otto Preminger, 1962)
In one of the greatest of all political thrillers, two senators have “nasty secrets” that threaten their careers. Handsome, morally upright Utah senator and family man Brigham Anderson (Don Murray) is the head of the senate committee to confirm the nomination of progressive intellectual Robert J Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) as Secretary Of State at the height of the Cold War. Leffingwell is forced to lie about his youthful dalliance with a Communist group while Brig is blackmailed with a compromising photo and letter documenting his wartime tryst with a blond serviceman named Ray. Stately homo Charles Laughton delivers a jaw-dropping (and jowl-jiggling) performance as “the senior senator from South Carolina,” Seabright Cooley.
On the hunt in New York for Ray, Brig recoils in dazed horror when he enters what just might be Hollywood’s first gay bar (according to Vito Russo), Club 602, a shadowy den of leering nellies. Brig flees in a cab, grabbing Ray’s noggin and roughly pushing him into a conveniently placed mud puddle. Brig will soon slit his throat rather than let “what happened in Hawaii” become public.
MOST SEVERE SEXUAL REPRESSION IN A SCOWLING SCHOOLMARM
The Night Of The Iguana (John Huston, 1964)
In Tennessee Williams’ campy fever dream, priggish Ms Fellowes (Grayson Hall) is a voice teacher acting as chaperone for fiery and nubile Charlotte (Sue Lyon, from Lolita) on an uproariously bumpy bus tour through Mexico with the Baptist Female College, guided by the unstable defrocked pastor Shannon (Richard Burton). Severe and stern with sallow, hawkish features and constrictive clothes, Ms Fellowes resembles a poor man’s Joan Crawford circa Johnny Guitar.
While she is called many unflattering names over the course of the film (“Lizzie Borden,” “a bull elephant on a rampage,” “the witch of Endor”), she receives the harshest reaming from brassy innkeeper Maxine (Ava Gardner) who yells: “Let’s level for a while, butch old gal. You know what you’re sore about, what you’re really sore about, is that little quail of yours has a natural preference for men instead of….” Shannon interrupts before she can deliver the fatal blow, later explaining to Maxine, “Ms Fellowes is a highly moral person, if she ever recognized the truth about herself it would destroy her.”
MOST GROSSLY ABUSED PANSY ON PUBLIC TRANSIT
The Incident(Larry Peerce, 1967; VHS only)
This is an ugly, nasty shocker about two deranged , drunken thugs, Artie (Martin Sheen) and Joe (Tony Musante), who terrorize a late-night subway car filled with a rainbow coalition of New Yorkers including lonely, weak fag Ken (Robert Fields), one of the most pathetic inverts to ever grace the screen.
The sadistic ruffians can smell flinching Ken’s fear a mile away. Artie pretends to be friendly and calm, even leading him on romantically before screaming, “Fucking fag, you make me want to puke,” and grabbing him in an arm-lock. Then it’s Tony’s turn to briefly play good cop before taking Ken’s watch and molesting his chest, saying, “Oh, you like that?” Artie laughingly shouts, “Rape! Rape!” Ken tries to escape from the subway but is dragged back in. From this point on, he is virtually paralyzed with terror, paraded and danced around the car by the men and begging for help from the other passengers. Artie finally puts a bloody bandage around the now-catatonic Ken’s head like a bonnet and leads him away: “Come on princess, you’ve been a naughty girl, you’ve gotta sit in the corner.” Ick.
MOST CRINGING, SNIVELLING GYM QUEEN
The Detective (Gordon Douglas, 1968)
Frank Sinatra plays tough but tolerant detective Joe Leland in this coldly cynical underworld thriller about the vile murder of a high-profile gay playboy. Includes painful scenes of homophobic police brutality including a sadistic round-up of trembling fags tormented in a mass interrogation. The killer is filled with self-hatred and disgust at the “twisted faces, outcasts, lives lived in shadows” that make up the gay world, his murderous rage sparked when told that his attempt to pass for straight doesn’t fool anyone. Also boasts a particularly mutilated gay corpse (tastefully hidden behind a fern).
Most horrible of all is Felix Tesla (Musante, again), the victim’s tortured and “psychotic” Canadian roommate, who begins to violently squirm the moment he responds to Leland’s questioning. He sobs and moans hysterically, gags and passes out after a false confession is forced out of him (“He didn’t know real from unreal”). He is executed on the electric chair before the real killer is found. “What a gorgeous little circus,” Sinatra sadly marvels, “everybody out to fry the little fag… including me.”
MOST INSPIRED SELF-PITYING LAMENT BY A TORTURED ACTRESS
The Killing Of Sister George (Robert Aldrich, 1968)
Sister George is the name of a TV character, a good-natured nun played by salty, heavy-drinking old butch June (Beryl Reid). Childy (Susannah Yorke) is her developmentally arrested poetess femme. Their relationship is intensely close, fuelled by George’s maniacal, abusive jealousy. She rages more hotly when she finds out that her character will be killed off. After being offered the role of the animated Clarabelle The Cow on Toddler Time (“a flawed, credible cow”) as compensation for being axed, June breaks into the studio and smashes the soundstage in an artifice-destroying angst-ridden assault (“Even the bloody coffin’s a fake!”). She then sits down and mournfully howls “moo” towards the heavens, increasing in volume until the final shot looks pityingly down at her from on high.
MOST RIDICULOUS BOUT OF SWISH HYSTERIA
The Gay Deceivers (Bruce Kessler, 1969)
In this offensively funny gaysploitation film, two red-blooded, straight American boys, goodie-two-shoes law student Danny (Kevin Coughlin) and slutty lifeguard Elliott (Larry Casey) must play gay to win exemption from the Vietnam draft. They don’t tell their family and friends what’s going on and mayhem ensues. They move into an objet d’art-stuffed love nest owned by the silk-shirted blond Malcolm DeJohn (Michael Greer), probably the most flamboyant, simpering and swanning gay character ever. His interpretive dance routine in cut-offs and apron while cooking up a Maria Montez-inspired omelette is unforgettable.
Haughty, pouty Malcolm’s breakdown when he catches one of Elliott’s girlfriends stepping in his flowerbed is a classic. “You dirty bitch! Look what you’ve done to my peonies!”
“You silly queen, they’re not even peonies, they’re marigolds.”
“I may not know my flowers but I know a bitch when I see one!” He grabs a flowerpot, clutches it to his chest and runs away weeping. (When Greer reappears as scabrously funny faggot prisoner Queenie in Harvey Hart’s Fortune And Men’s Eyes, he references his earlier line with, “I may not know my gardens but I know a pansy when I see one.”)
MOST WRYLY SELF-DEPRECATING SASS BY A “POCKMARKED JEW FAIRY”
The Boys In The Band (William Friedkin, 1970)
This pioneering homo bitch-fest centres on the powder keg of ill will that explodes when hateful queen Michael (Kenneth Nelson) gets an unexpected visit from a reputedly straight college buddy Alan (Peter White) during a birthday get-together for the acerbic Harold (Leonard Frey). While anxiety-ridden Michael has self-hatred down to an art form and hissing sissy Emory’s (Cliff Gorman) rubber wrist gives Malcolm DeJohn a run for his money, the real bon mots come from Harold, whose cold and calculated zingers cut far deeper than Emory’s camp clichés and Michael’s debilitating Catholic guilt.
When Harold is chided by Michael for arriving late to his own fête, he calmly orates: “What I am, Michael, is a 32-year-old ugly, pockmarked Jew fairy, and if it takes me a while to pull myself together and if I smoke a little grass before I get up the nerve to show my face to the world, it’s nobody’s goddamn business but my own…. And how are you this evening?”
MOST LUDICROUS TRANNIE SUPER-VILLAIN
Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (Russ Meyer, 1970)
A psychedelic romp about a girl band who finds sin and success in Hollywood after getting mixed up with dandy impresario Z-Man (John Lazar). But this cute playboy soon gets punished with a full mental breakdown for his fondness for high culture and theatricality (he speaks in a blend of jive and Shakespearean verse: “Get thine ass in gear”).
At a special party, Z-Man gets dressed and drugged up to announce that he is Superwoman, forcing himself on blond mimbo Lance Rock who spurns him. “How dare you cast aside my alabaster charms,” he replies. “You will drink the black sperm of my venge-ance!” He then reveals a small pair of breasts. When Lance mockingly growls, “Oh my God, you’ve been a broad all along… a goddamn ugly broad,” Superwoman decapitates him and goes on a sword-swinging rampage. The narrator castigates Z-Man for “losing sight of reality.”
Given the record of ’60s movies, can you blame him?